from Goss’ Garage by Pat Goss

They’re here, I narrowly missed a giant one the other day and they’ll be everywhere during the spring rains. Yep, it’s bent wheel, blown tire, smashed suspension time again it is pothole season. You’ve been there; you’re peacefully driving along when ka-wham you hit the mother of all pot holes. Its bad enough that adrenalin has your heart racing and your anxiety level is off the scale but “oh $$$$ an expensive alignment will destroy my cash flow, if I even have cash flow in this economy.”

Whoa, don’t panic until it’s time to panic, you may not need an alignment or anything more than a checkup. Not every heart-pounding serious-feeling encounter with a pot hole leads to expensive repairs. But it is imperative to have everything under your car checked immediately. Often that’s all you’ll need.

If you’re like most drivers you don’t know what really indicates an alignment is necessary. Some folks think pot-hole bashing automatically means an alignment is required. Some believe the ridiculous idea that if the car pulls to one side it’s time to align and still others only consider tire wear. But even slamming into a pot hole doesn’t guarantee you’ll need an alignment. Actually, by themselves none of these things mean you need an alignment.

Taking your hands off the wheel to test for pulling is sheer insanity and seriously dangerous. Even if the car does pull it doesn’t prove anything except the car pulls. Pulling or drifting to one side could be caused by uneven tire pressure, a bad tire, a binding brake, a worn front end part, a power steering problem or a host of other faults. Yes, it could be caused by an out of alignment condition but that’s the last suspect, not the first.

Tire wear? Here again you could sell yourself into unnecessary repairs unless you know how to accurately interpret what you’re seeing. Abnormal tire wear can be caused by too little pressure, too much pressure, failure to properly rotate, etc. Just like the car that pulls, the last item to suspect is alignment. The only true way to know whether it’s time to align is to have the vehicle measured at a competent shop using a modern four-wheel alignment machine.

Once it’s determined you need an alignment, you’re faced with confusing terms. Do you need a two-wheel alignment, thrust-angle alignment or four-wheel alignment? To simplify this mess totally disregard the term two-wheel alignment as it’s obsolete. That leaves thrust-angle and four-wheel alignment. But how do you decide which you need? Actually neither you nor the technician can make that decision until the car is measured on the alignment machine. Today’s alignment machines begin by checking the alignment of the rear wheels. If the rear wheels are properly aligned the technician doesn’t touch the rear wheels but uses them as a known good reference to align the front wheels. This is a thrust-angle alignment, the less expensive of the two.

But if the rear wheels are not properly aligned they must be aligned first. That’s because the rear wheels are used as reference to align the front wheels. The rear wheels and the front wheels must work together to provide good tire wear, handling, braking and steering. When the rear wheels are out of alignment the tech first aligns the two rear wheels then the two front wheels. Here all four wheels are being aligned, therefore the term four-wheel alignment. A quality alignment can often last the life of the car but if you do need an alignment, smart shopping will reduce the cost. Be warned, the too-cheap job is usually way too expensive in the end.